A Beginner’s Guide to How the MLB Playoffs Work


How Do the MLB Playoffs Work

The one time of the year all baseball fans look forward to is the playoffs. Because the MLB season has so many games, a lot of fans can easily take games for granted, but once the MLB playoffs roll around, every game, every run, and every at-bat means something. Even though the MLB playoffs happen every year, the playoff format has the potential to change slightly from year to year. This leaves a lot of fans wondering, how do MLB playoffs work?

The MLB playoffs include four rounds (Wild Card, League Division Series, League Championship Series, and World Series) where teams from the American League and National League compete against themselves until one team is left in each league. Those two remaining teams play in the World Series.

However, there are some slight differences from year to year in how teams make the playoffs, the number of teams that make the playoffs, and how many playoff games are played. Those differences generally emerge from negotiations in the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA).

In this article, we’ll look at how the MLB playoffs currently work and how the MLB playoffs have worked in previous years.

How the MLB Playoffs Work as of the 2022 Season 

The way the MLB playoffs are structured might seem complicated on paper, which is why I’ve included the image below that should give you a high-level overview of how the MLB playoff brackets are currently structured.

2022 MLB Playoff Bracket Format

Beginning with the 2022 season, the MLB will have expanded playoffs with an additional two Wild Card teams being added to the playoff schedule.

There are 12 teams that make the MLB playoffs – 6 teams from the American League (AL) and 6 teams from the National League (NL). The MLB playoffs are separated into 4 rounds, with the first 3 rounds being played within a team’s own league (American and National).

Once the first 3 rounds of the playoffs have concluded, there is one team left in the American League and one team left in the National League. Both of these teams move on to the World Series, which is the final championship series that crowns the winner of the MLB for that season.

The number of games played for each playoff round varies:

  • The Wild Card Round is best-of-three games
  • The League Division Series (ALCS & NLCS) is best-of-five games
  • The League Championship Series (ALDS & NLDS) is best-of-seven games
  • The World Series (WS) is best-of-seven games

Let’s go into more details about each round of the MLB postseason.

The Wild Card Round

The Wild Card Round is the first round of the MLB playoffs where teams play a best-of-three matchup to determine the winner. In other words, the first team to win two games will win the series.

While there are a total of 12 teams that make the MLB postseason, there are only 8 teams that play in the Wild Card round – 4 teams from the American League and 4 teams from the National League.

The 8 teams that play in the MLB Wild Card Round are:

  • The #3 seed, which is a team that won their Division
  • The #4, #5, and #6 seeds, which are considered the “Wild Card” teams

In the Wild Card Round, the #3 seed team plays the #6 seed team while the #4 seed team plays the #5 seed team.

This means the #1 and #2 seeds from both the American League and the National League get a first-round bye. These four teams are automatically playing in the next round of the playoffs, which is the League Division Series.

In case you’re wondering how teams are seeded, I’ve included a section further down in this article that goes more into detail about how teams are seeded for the MLB playoffs.

League Division Series (LDS)

The League Division Series (LDS) is the second round of the MLB playoffs where teams play a best-of-five matchup to determine the winner. In other words, the first team to win three games will win the series.

Because there are two leagues in the MLB, the second round of the playoffs are more commonly referred to as the American League Division Series (ALDS) and the National League Division Series (NLDS).

In this second round of the MLB playoffs, there are four teams that will know they’ll be playing since the start of the postseason – the #1 and #2 seeds from both the American League and National League. As a reward for being the #1 and #2 seeds, these teams get to skip the Wild Card Round and go directly to the League Division Series.

However, these teams need to wait for the Wild Card Round to finish before they know who they will be playing.

The #1 seed team will play the winner of the #4 and #5 teams from the Wild Card Round. The #2 seed team will play the winner of the #3 and #6 teams from the Wild Card Round.

This means there are a total of 8 teams that play as part of the League Division Series round. The four teams that win the League Division Series will move on to the next round of the playoffs.

League Championship Series (LCS)

The League Championship Series (LCS) is the third round of the MLB playoffs where teams play a best-of-seven matchup to determine the winner. In other words, the first team to win four games will win the series.

Because there are two leagues in the MLB, the third round of the playoffs are more commonly referred to as the American League Championship Series (ALCS) and the National League Championship Series (NLCS).

There are a total of four teams that play in this round of the MLB playoffs – two teams from the American League and two teams from the National League. Both of the winners of the League Championship Series are considered to have won the “pennant” for that year.

In baseball, winning a pennant means a team won the League Championship Series and they are the only remaining team in the playoffs for their league. There are two pennant winners each season and those pennant winners advance to the final round of the playoffs – the World Series.

World Series (WS)

The World Series, which is sometimes called the Fall Classic, is the fourth and final round of the MLB playoffs where the two remaining teams play a best-of-seven matchup to determine the winner.

This round of the playoffs is the most exciting time of the year for baseball fans. The entire season for both teams has led up to this series and the winner is crowned the World Series Champions for the entire MLB.

The winner of the World Series is also awarded the Commissioner’s Trophy.

How Do Teams Make the Playoffs?

Baseball-Game

Now that we have an understanding of how the playoff format works, the next question people wonder about is how exactly teams are selected for the playoffs.

6 teams from the American League and 6 teams from the National League make the playoffs, for a total of 12 teams. Those 12 teams include:

  • 3 Division winners from the American League (East, Central, & West Divisions)
  • 3 Division winners from the National League (East, Central, & West Divisions)
  • 3 Wild Card teams from the American League
  • 3 Wild Card teams from the National League

Once the 3 winners are known from each Division, the remaining 3 Wild Card teams are selected for each league by looking at the overall standings for the remaining teams. The top 3 teams remaining, regardless of their division, are the 3 Wild Card teams that will play in the playoffs.

How Are Teams Seeded for the MLB Playoffs?

With the MLB having six teams from each league making it to the playoffs, there will need to be a way to rank those teams from 1-6.

Teams are seeded by comparing their overall record to other teams that made the playoffs. The seeding for the MLB playoffs is determined by:

  • The 2 Division winners with the best overall record are seeded #1 and #2. Both teams receive a first-round bye.
  • The third Division winner is seeded #3
  • The Wild Card teams are seeded #4, #5, and #6, based on the order of their overall records

For a list of current MLB standings that also includes the breakdown of who would currently be in the playoffs, check out these MLB standing from Fox Sports.

What Determines Home Field in MLB Playoffs?

With postseason games having an odd number of games in each round and some series having the potential of going up to seven games, a lot of fans wonder if there is home-field advantage in the MLB playoffs. But first, what exactly does it mean to have a home-field advantage in the MLB playoffs?

In the MLB playoffs, having home-field advantage means one team is scheduled to host playoff games more times than their opposing team. Oftentimes, the team with the home-field advantage will host the final game of the series, if the series lasts that long.

For example, the team with home-field advantage in the World Series will host game 7. But the World Series matchup is best-of-seven, which means it’s possible there will not be a need for a game 7.

The higher-seed team will have home-field advantage in the playoffs, but the two teams will switch between who hosts a game and who is traveling. According to PlayoffStatus, the schedule for which team will host a game looks like this:

  • In the Wild Card Round (best-of-three series), the higher-seed team is scheduled to host all 3 games.
  • In the League Division Series (best-of-five series), the higher seed is scheduled to host the first 2 games, travel the next 2 games, then host the very last game.
  • In the League Championship Series and the World Series (best-of-seven), the higher-seed team is scheduled to host the first 2 games, travel the next 3 games, then host the final 2 games

The History of MLB’s Playoff Structure

It may come as a surprise to some people just how much the structure of the MLB playoffs has changed over the years. Below is a table that will give you a high-level overview of how the MLB has historically structured its postseason schedule.

YearsRounds included in PlayoffsNumber of Teams in Playoffs
Prior to 1969World Series:
Best of 7*
2
1969 – 1993League Championship Series:
1969 – 1984: Best of 5
1985 – 1993: Best of 7
World Series:
Best of 7
4
1994 – 2011Division Series:
Best of 5
League Championship Series:
Best of 7
World Series:
Best of 7
8
2012 – 2019 & 2021Wild Card Round:
Best of 1
Division Series:
Best of 5
League Championship Series:
Best of 7
World Series:
Best of 7
10
2020Wild Card Round:
Best of 3
Division Series:
Best of 5
League Championship Series:
Best of 7
World Series:
Best of 7
16
2022 – currentWild Card Round:
Best of 3
Division Series:
Best of 5
League Championship Series:
Best of 7
World Series:
Best of 7
12
* The World Series was a Best-of-9 series in 1903, 1919, 1920, & 1921
– Data for the table was gathered from Wikipedia and MLB

As you can see from the table above, the number of teams and the number of games has dramatically increased from the original playoff structure.

This increase in teams and games played is because as baseball grew in popularity, the number of teams also grew. And this increase in teams led to those teams being split into multiple divisions within each league, which inevitably led to changes to how the playoffs were structured.

For example, in 1968, the MLB had 20 teams total and in 2021, the MLB had 30 teams total. The MLB also realigned in 1994, where each league was split into three divisions. This realignment is what led to MLB adding a Division Series to the playoff format (which was scheduled to be part of the 1994 season, but there was no 1994 postseason due to the strike).

With all of these changes happening to baseball, the playoff brackets also changed. As you can see from the table above, the MLB playoffs only started out as only a World Series game between the two best teams from each league.

As time went on, the playoffs eventually expanded by adding more teams. These additional teams led to additional rounds in the playoffs.

Steve Nelson

I'm the owner of Baseball Training World. I live in Denver, Colorado and I enjoy playing baseball on two different adult baseball teams in the surrounding area.

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